“But now,” Paul says (Eph 2:13). Something has changed. Things aren’t what they used to be. Namely, the Gentiles are no longer separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:12).
Let me back up because the historical context of this passage is important.
I doubt that we can underestimate the divide between the Jews and the Gentiles prior to the first century. There was a wide and deep gulf between them. They viewed each other with utter contempt. They shared a long history of disdain for one another, reaching back to the very beginning.
The Gentiles, in particular, were completely separated from God. Paul said, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Ro 1:25). They were blatant idolaters. As a result, God gave them up to dishonorable passions (Ro 1:26). They abandoned God, so God abandoned them.
As for the Jews, they knew God because God gave them special revelation through his law and the prophets. Even so, they, too, were under sin (Ro 3:9). They were alienated from God as well. Paul reminded the Romans, “Whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (Ro 3:19).
In short, everyone, both Jews and Gentiles, was guilty before God.
The Jews, however, did have an advantage over the Gentiles. Paul said, “What advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God” (Ro 3:1-2). God gave them his logion—his words, his utterances. Their advantage was knowing the truth about God and salvation.
Despite Israel’s many failures throughout the Old Testament, they did serve God. They were God’s chosen people while the Gentiles remained not only without God but also alienated from Israel.
Put yourself in their shoes. You can probably imagine just how challenging it was to unite these two groups together. To the dismay of many Jews, God’s plan of redemption always included the Gentiles.
Do you remember how Jonah reacted when God told him to go to the Gentile city of Nineveh to preach? He ran in the opposite direction. Do you remember how he reacted once he did preach in Nineveh and the people repented? He threw a temper-tantrum because God didn’t destroy them for their former wickedness. Jonah seems to represent what was once the prevailing attitude among the Jews.
The Gentiles, of course, didn’t feel any better about Israel. As soon as God dropped his hedge of protection around them, one Gentile nation or another was ready and willing to conquer them.
Suffice it to say, a certain amount of tension was created when the Jews and Gentiles finally came together in the church. Both groups carried in some cultural baggage, so the animosity continued, though to a lesser degree than before.